III. The Calvinists in France

Calvinism began to reach flood tide in France in 1561 and climbed to its crest in 1562, just as the first religious war began. The contemporary estimates were that Calvinists had 2,150 churches  and a total estimated membership of 3 million out of a population estimated at 20 million.

This strength was sufficient for the Prince of Conde to rally the Protestants in war against the Crown in 1562. The Calvinists sent so many pastors from Switzerland to help this effort that for a time not one remained in Lausanne. Agents scurried back and forth, and by the time the war ended, two years later, religious toleration, and the rights of the Calvinists, had been expanded.

In the midst of this effort, printing and writing continued as before. In 1561 Calvin produced thirteen titles, in 1562, another thirteen, seven by Beza in 1561, one in 1562, and so on. Nevertheless, there was some slackening of polemics in 1561 and 1562, because the best of the polemicists had gone to the war. Therefore a preponderance of devotional works appeared. But the flood of books, brochures, and tracts continued, and their cumulative effect must have been  profoundly corrosive of Catholic power in France. 1

The risks that were taken [by Calvinist ministers travelling from Switzerland to France] were as high as any known today, just as the mercilous nature of the authorities then are matched by the totalitarian powers of modern times. Some of the travelers seem to have resorted to obscure mountain routes up into Dauphine. A Dauphine Protestant in the 1950’s told historian Robert M. Kingdon that “old folks can still point out the network of mountain paths by which the ministers came into France.” The region is still dotted with stone farmhouses that contain secret hiding places behind chimneys or in cellars, a day’s walk apart, that were used by the Underground against the Nazis during World War II, and that were created during the period of the French religious wars and the time of Calvin. 2

In the view of contemporary historian Robert M. Kingdon, Calvin and Protestantism achieved a genuine revolution by overthrowing a ruling class: the Roman Catholic clergy. That class represented a widespread international system using a special elite language, with its own courts and canon law, its own military strength and financial power, its own political connections and official authority.3

St. Bartholomew’s Day [1572]: Total War:

Because the previous two years had been the most pleasant and least-disturbed of all those in the years since the French religious wars started, the Calvinists considered themselves secure. The marriage, [of the Prince of Navarre, Henry Bourbon, and Princess Margaret, daughter of Catherine d’Medici, in August, 1572] with its blend of a Protestant Prince with a Catholic Princess, seemed to most the epitome of cooperation and the strongest possible indication of better days and ways to come.

At this moment, when the flower of Protestant nobility had gathered in Paris in honor of their standard-bearer, the Queen Mother Catherine and her son, King Charles IX, summoned the youthful Duc d’Guise, and ordered him to assassinate the Protestant leader, Admiral Coligny. Coligny, already badly wounded by a sniper during a parade, was in bed at the time the order was given, on the dawn of St. Bartholomew’s Day. Coligny’s house was ringed with royal troops, ostensibly to protect the Admiral from further attacks; they obeyed the orders of the Duc  d’Guise, who was accompanied by the Duc de Angouleme.

Most of Coligny’s attendants, after barring the door, escaped over the rooftops, but the Admiral was too feeble to follow. The soldiers broke the door down and chopped him to death with swords and axes. His body was thrown out the window to the two dukes, one of whom wiped the blood away to verify Coligny’s identity. The mob was summoned by the ringing in the bell tower of St. Germain l’Auxerrois, and gathered around Coligny’s cadaver. It was mutilated and separated into parts; the mob surged into the streets and three hundred of the royal guard, wearing white sashes on their left arms and white crosses on their hats for identification, swarmed through the city, leading the attacks upon the Calvinists.

Men, women, and children were murdered; the King himself stood in the window of the palace with an arquebus and fired upon people from the Louvre.1 The massacre lasted three days and thousands of bodies were flung into the Seine. As news of this proceeding reached other towns and cities of France, similar massacres were conducted. Lyon, Rouen, Dieppe, Havre, and other places were drenched in blood. Estimates vary from 50,000 upward; huge numbers in that time. Arguments persist, as always, over the precision of the statistics, but none is possible over the significance of the event. 2


1 Scott, O., in North, G., (Ed), “Tactics…,” p.384-385.

2 Scott, ibid., p.380.

3 ibid., p.387-388.

1 The king later bitterly regretted his endorsement of the massacre instigated by his mother, and his participation. Two years later, dying of tuberculosis, he blamed his mother: “Who but you is the cause of all of this? God’s blood, you are the cause of it all!” Later he exclaimed to his nurse,  “What blood shed! What murders! What evil council I have followed! O my God, forgive me…” (Wickipedia)

2 Scott, O., in North, G., (Ed.) “Tactics…,” p.386-387.

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